The siege enacted in Act four of Cyrano provides a window into the historical events behind Rostand’s story. In 1640 regiments of French soldiers were sent to Arras, a city near the northern border of modern-day France and, at the time, a territory of the Spanish Netherlands. It was a well-fortified city, requiring the French to employ surprise in attempting to take it; force alone wouldn’t be enough. Reinforcements had not reached Arras in time to defend it, so instead the Spanish cut off supply lines to the French troops in an effort to starve them out of the city. The offensive was of such importance to the French government, however, that the king himself marched into battle and 1,500 wagons of provisions were sent to the waiting troops. When fighting resumed, it did not last long; the Spanish city surrendered the next day.
As insignificant as these details may seem (the event is largely unrecorded save for its chronicle in Cyrano), they transpired within a larger framework: Europe engrossed in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War. Religious tensions had been high since the posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses started the Protestant Reformation a century before. In 1618 fighting ignited over questions of royal succession in Bohemia. Catholics and Protestants in the region each held loyalty to different parties attempting to lay claim to the throne, and when a Catholic was named sovereign, Protestants in Prague threw his representatives out a window for fear that their religious liberties would be revoked. The martial instability that followed their attack engulfed the continent in war, spreading first to modern-day Germany and then to the rest of Europe.
What began as a war of religion shifted into a war of dynastic rivalries. The crown-prince of Bohemia was heir to the Holy Roman Empire. A few generations earlier, the Holy Roman and Spanish Empires had been joined under one crown and, though subsequently split, they were still closely aligned—two branches of one Hapsburg family. Becoming emperor, he brought broader proportions to the previously contained conflict. Some in Europe, thinking the Hapsburgs’ power had grown too great, thought it time to enter the foray. France especially, ruled by rival Bourbons and surrounded on either side by Hapsburg reigns, viewed involvement as an inevitability.
The siege of Arras took place as part of this larger conflict. France had managed to stave off direct involvement until the Spanish Empire began to splinter. While their opponents suffered from internal revolts, the French gained favorable outcomes on both war fronts as peace was negotiated in Germany. Victorious, France took its place as the foremost influence in Europe’s political and cultural arenas, filling the void a declining Spain had left—and providing a golden-age setting for Rostand’s drama.
—Samuel Evola, a student at University of Notre Dame, researched and wrote this essay as an intern with CST’s Education Department.